Tombs of Buganda Kings
The Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi comprise the major spiritual centre for the Buganda people, the largest Ugandan ethnic group.
Four successive Kabakas (kings) of Buganda were buried in the same tomb house at Kasubi, the building which is at the core of this site. The complex is the best extant example of Ganda architecture and palace design. It is an active religious site.
Community Perspective: Easily accessed as it lies in the capital Kampala. A visit is accompanied by a local guide and takes half an hour. All reviews so far have been before the restoration, which was completed in 2023.
Map of Tombs of Buganda KingsLoad map
I provide a photo of our visit to the Kasubi tombs taken in 2005 (I.e before the great fire of March 2010) to “support” my “right” to review it! I can fully understand the somewhat dispiriting experience which Zoe recently ran into. There were elements of it for us and they possibly led to my decision not to do a review at the time. However, the "imminent" reopening (but repeatedly delayed - its last promised date was Dec 2023 and is still only "90% Complete" in Jan 24 - with no promise!) of the tombs, together with Zoe's review, have stimulated me to catch up on the memory of our visit and to fill in some gaps in my "understanding".
At least we saw, and entered, the main structure over the tombs, the “Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga”, although I don't remember that as being a great "revelation". The photo of it in the Craterre report linked to below didn't contain any "surprises". I don't even have an interior photo and can't remember being prevented from doing so (though I do have some of the interior of the Drum House). What is particularly "annoying" is not even to remember seeing the "two chairs and a table which were donated by Queen Victoria of England" and were destroyed in the fire!!
We have often found that visiting and gaining a reasonable understanding of cultural WHS in Sub-Saharan Africa is not easy for the non-African tourist, however interested they might be in them. I think of Koutammakou, Abomey and the Asante buildings. I have described the "value" of such sites as being "low on the tangible but high on the intangible". As such, a good guide (assisted by some personal "preparation"?) is required to explain the background, but that is often not the case, with the job sometimes being more a way of accessing tips etc than as the culmination of significant study in the subject and the guiding profession.
We undoubtedly failed to get the most out of our visit of almost 20 years ago, failing to "progress" much beyond its "on view" sights - and I am prepared to blame ourselves as much as our guide! It had been a WHS for 4 years but Web-based information was rather limited and certainly not available "in situ"! The "East African Handbook", with which we then travelled, has a only bit over half a page on the Tombs. Nowadays one can access the Nomination File which, in this case, is quite good, particularly given its small (5mb) size - but I have checked on Wayback Machine and that document wasn't available on-line until early 2008. I can further recommend this downloadable document from Craterre titled "Kasubi Tombs. Uganda, Kampala" by Sébastien Moriset updated after the fire and containing nice photos and plans/explanation of the interior, together with a useful glossary and explanation of the history and cultural practices. I wish we had been able to reference both before our visit!! (Craterre's documents, by the way, are excellent and I have already recommended its equivalent one on Koutammakou in my review of that WHS).
Understanding why it has taken so long to rebuild sheds light on the Tomb's "cultural environment". Japanese assistance addressed financial problems, but could do nothing to overcome the simmering cultural conflicts heightened by the rebuild! These have included debates about the skills and materials being used and the “rights” of certain groups to determine and supply those. Throw into that a complex mix of Ugandan politics and competing religious factions and you have recipe for delay. See this article and this from ICOMOS
Note the complexity regarding the "Authenticity" of any rebuild. As Japan has often stated, "Western" concepts aren't really applicable to structures built of natural materials since they regularly have to be replaced irrespective of "disasters". This para from a UNESCO Mission regarding the history of the destroyed building shows that it too had undergone "inauthentic changes" - "The Muzibu Azaala Mpanga was originally constructed in 1882 and became a Royal Mausoleum in 1884. In 1905, the building was reduced in size because of structural problems related to its very large roof. Further remodelling of the building took place in 1938, and at that time non-vernacular materials were introduced. Concrete supports and steel beams had the advantage to allow more floor space in the absence of a forest of poles supporting the roof."
The "King's Wives"
Finally - The issue raised by Zoe about those “Slums” and the women and families living within them. Who are they? This article by UNESCO titled “Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi: a testament to their female guardians” provides some background but perhaps the most useful paragraphs are to be found in the above article on the "conflict" between "Traditionalists" and "Modernists - "The custodians of tradition inherit their duties from their ancestors. They comprise the leaders of the Bugandan clans and the people in charge of producing and looking after the traditional items of regalia. In the surroundings of the royal tombs these are mainly women – the wives and sisters of the deceased Kabaka. These are hereditary offices, so there are wives of a Kabaka who passed away 200 years ago.......... Many of the custodians of tradition have only very little Western education." (My Bolds)
It seems that the people actually "on site" (as opposed to the "senior" current royal officials living elsewhere) are relatively “lowly”, “possible” distant descendants from within the extended family and contacts of a long previous Kabaka, living there off their inherited rights, "secret" knowledge and duties (which they naturally guard with all their might given the alternative of being thrown out!). This article from 2010 gives an indication of the reality of being an "on site carer" at that time. These people are significantly separated from, and even hostile to, the current “real Royals”. The current Kabaka of Buganda - Muwenda Mutebi II (b 1955) and his family are rich. He was educated at an English “Public” (i.e “Private”!) school and Magdelane Cambridge. His (official and regularized in a Catholic ceremony) single wife has a BA from NYU and an MA from the NY Inst of Tech. Childern of other "wives" exist, and the mother of his eldest was one Vénantie Sebudandi who died in Nov 2023 having been a Rwandan diplomat in numerous roles worldwide. And the same applies to the many wives and children of his immediate predecessor, Mutesa II (1924-69), whose "tomb" is one of the 4. He too was educated at Cambridge, and, whilst his family (13 wives and 23 children!) may have suffered during the Obote regime, many had a good education and have or have had good jobs and careers as per this Wiki article (page down). None of these people or their descendants are ever going to “live” in a hut at the tombs, making "rush mats"!!!
As of 2024 the main building is still under renovation. You arrive in the busy area of Kampala to be taken to a mandatory guide who explains mostly well until you get to the main building. I wasn't really impressed and I find 4 generations of kings hardly an impressive feat in the world. It is mildly interesting to hear how cultures works around here but no way would I recommend it. In fact after the first building, the drum building and the view from the large center one is taken around graveyards and SLUMS that are actually housing of the king's wives. They live here as long as they alive, taking on new hubbies and getting knocked up by permission sought in the main building (don't really want to know the details) and if they die the family she has aren't accepted as royal so they should get lost. I'm not sure this is really how it's working out as they are way too many houses in the area. In retrospect I could have done with a 10 minute tour and exit. Needing to see the king's escape route and walk back to the parking lot through external slums wasn't nice.
I would give it a lower score but the pictures from the main building look good so I think that would be worth seeing. Women also need to wear some sort of scarf to cover up my clothes not that I was wearing anything revealing. I was also not really supposed to enter the drum house but they don't follow that "rule" anymore.
Would have skipped Kampala altogether if not for this site which wastes a lot of time just getting in and out of town. One the of the worst sites I have been in a long time.
It wasn’t much to look at. Some concrete pillars, some buckled girders, some plastic sheeting. Beyond it, the compound was scruffy and dilapidated. Old women in trances lay on the steps, naked children washed from bowls, flies swarmed around the matoke and the scent of incense hung in the air. I was in the presence of royalty…
Visiting the tombs of the Buganda kings at Kasubi in north-west Kampala really represents the dual nature of being a Unesco World Heritage hunter. Because I was interested in World Heritage Sites I knew that the tomb of the kings had been almost completely destroyed by a fire (was it an accident? was it arson?) less than two years previously and so was unlikely to repay a visit. But because I was interested in World Heritage Sites I also knew that I had to visit it whilst in Kampala. Such is ones lot!
And I was glad I did. Even with the central tomb (the Muzibu Azaala Mpanga) severely damaged there was enough to see to reward the 10,000 shilling entrance fee (and the fight through Kampala’s notorious traffic to get there). While the site may not have been altogether sacred it was certainly ceremonial and so that entrance fee got us a guide, Fred. We entered through the large, low guard hut. Being a guard is a hereditary post filled from certain clans. Service seems to be lifelong, judging from the age of the guard I met. Fred explained the significance of the site. When a king of the Buganda kingdom – the kabaka – died he was interred in the location of his palace. His successor would need to establish a new palace in a different location and, when the time came, be buried there. And so on and so forth. Kasubi was unusual because four successive ssekabakai, spanning the period 1835 to 1969, were buried here. He led s through the royal drum house (the Ndoga Obukaba) where a heap of drums (and a large wooden model cannon from the late 19th century) were stored. The drums were used to communicate over distances. Carrying on we reached the inner courtyard (the Olugya). The central tomb stood straight ahead at the far side of a semicircular fenced enclosure.
Fred explained that the tomb was once the largest thatched building of its type. Not much remained to view now, though he assured me that the Baganda will restore it through a combination of traditional and high-tech skills. They possess 3D scans of what it used to look like (and which has reassured them that the bodies of the four ssekabakai, buried 13 feet underground in the ‘forest’, are still in place and intact). The delay, he told me, was with the ancient skills – knowledge of ancient techniques has more or less died out so they were having to train up new craftsmen from scratch.
A touch of homeliness was provided that other areas of the site were inhabited. The women we met were queens of Buganda – or more properly the descendants of queens. When a kabaka died, his widows were relocated to the compound. They then raised their families here. I don’t know what the protocol is with widows and descendants remarrying but there were small children running around and the last kabaka to be buried here died in 1969. The wives themselves had a simple open-air graveyard at the rear of the property. Rather than being interred in an underground ‘forest’ within a large house they had an enviable hillside setting looking out over Makarere University and the city centre.
A word should perhaps be said about nomenclature. The country of Uganda takes its name from the kingdom of Buganda. The people of that kingdom are called the Baganda (or just Ganda for short) and an individual member of the tribe is a Muganda. Their language is called Luganda. And their heartlands were around the north-west of Lake Victoria, the area where Uganda’s capital, Kampala, sits. The kingdom still has some remnant authority, though the level of toleration shown to it by the national government ebbs and flows. When the British established their ‘Protectorate’ over Uganda in 1894 they largely did so on the basis of the centralised administrative system already set up by Buganda. Individual Baganda were promoted within the Protectorate – the British had a love of sponsoring certain favoured tribes or castes within their empire. Buganda was, perhaps, fortunate that at the time the British reached what is now Uganda their kingdom was regionally dominant. Had they arrived a century earlier perhaps the rival Kingdom of Bunyoro out towards Lake Albert would have been the centre of the Protectorate instead. Regardless of Buganda’s dominant position in the new colony, this did not mean that relationships were always good. The second of the four ssekabakai buried here, Mwanga II, died in the Seychelles after being exiled by the British. Ironically enough, the fourth, Edward Muteesa II, was knighted by the British but still died in exile – this time in London - after having fallen out with Uganda’s post-independence president Milton Obote who abolished Uganda’s kingdoms. While Yoweri Museveni later reintroduced the kingdoms it is perhaps of note that the tomb burnt down during a period of unrest concerning the rights and powers of the Buganda Kingdom. Despite the promise of a full investigation, the cause of the fire is still unknown.
World Heritage-iness: 2
My Experience: 2
(Visited Dec 2011)
It was a rainy day when I visited the Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi in Kampala, Uganda, in summer 2014. The grey afternoon served as a fine backdrop to a World Heritage Site that had seen its share of troubles after a fire destroyed several of the buildings in 2010. The site had been inscribed for its cultural significance for the Baganda people, and the centerpiece was a large thatched house containing the royal tombs of four Buganda kings who reigned in the 19th and 20th centuries. When I visited, all that remained of the central house was a steel frame and a concrete platform awaiting reconstruction, all surrounded by a metal fence. Sheaves of straw were positioned around the hill in preparation for the repairs of some of the thatched houses surrounding the central house. I walked through the drum house and other houses that were not destroyed or had been rebuilt, and admired the craftsmanship of the roofs as seen from inside. One thing that surprised me in some houses was the presence of modern material such as concrete and steel in addition to traditional materials; these changes had been made in the 20th century. As I understand it, the overall reconstruction work of the tombs is still in progress, but I would love to see them once they are rebuilt.
Logistics: The Kasubi Tombs are located in Kampala, and can be reached by private transportation.
The ‘Kasubi Tombs’, as the Tombs of the Buganda Kings are known locally, may be the only tourist attraction of Kampala (a capital city with 2.5 million inhabitants). And then came that devastating fire on March 10, 2010: the main thatched structure with the 4 tombs of the former kings and their regalia burned to the ground. The cause is still unknown: was it arson or was it struck by lightning? Anyway: it hasn’t been rebuilt yet. Still, I found it an interesting site, and it is an easy place to visit shortly before leaving Uganda via Entebbe Airport.
The tombs are situated on a hill about three kilometers outside of Kampala city centre. Due to a traffic jam my minibus from Entebbe had a hard time reaching the bus station, so I got out somewhere along the way and approached a boda-boda. The guy immediately understood where I wanted to go, and we took off zigzagging through the dense traffic. There are even a few signs along the way to announce the proximity of a world heritage site, a small detail that always makes me happy.
One enters the site through the only original thatched building that remains after the 2010 fire. There are two guards at the door opening, each associated with a different Buganda clan that is in charge of security. The modern entrance including guest book and ticket seller is a little further inside the compound. There they tell me that women are required to wear skirts, but they do have a wraparound cloth that I can use to cover my pants.
After the formalities (there’s a 10,000 UGS / 2.5 EUR entrance fee), I was introduced to a guide who would give me a tour of the site. The tour begins with the story of the origins of this place. The Buganda kingdom dates back to the 13th century, and since then there have been 36 kings. During the English colonization in the 19th century, they lost their worldly power. With the exception of a few brief intervals during the dictatorship of Obote and Amin in the 1970s and 80s, they have nevertheless kept their ceremonial function until today.
The destroyed structure, an eight-meter-high circular building with a thatched roof, was the centerpiece of the site. The progress of reconstruction is slow. According to the guide that is caused by the many ceremonial rules that have to be followed. But the costs were an obstacle too: Japan recently has chipped in, and it is expected that at the end of 2016, the large thatched dome will be resurrected again.
This main building is located on a circular plaza, with rows of houses around its edge. These houses belonged to the favorite widows of the deceased kings. The first king had as many as 84 women. Even today the descendants of the widows live on the property. There is a kind of village at the back where 35 people live permanently, and there is arable land for them to grow some food.
At the far end of the site lies a cemetery where members of the royal family are buried. This is similar to the tradition of the Toro, whose tombs I visited a few days before near Fort Portal. Just like the Buganda, the Toro are one of the four remaining traditional kingdoms in Uganda. I'm glad I had been able to enter the Toro tombs and see the ceremonial possessions of the deceased kings because here in Kasubi these have largely been lost during the fire.
Near the exit lies the Royal Drum House. Drums are kept here that are used for ceremonial occasions, such as a visit of a member of the royal family or a death. Women cannot enter here, but you are allowed to take pictures from the doorway. This restored house shows how the reed layers are attached to make a thatched roof.
My half-hour guided visit ended at the shop where they sell paintings on bark cloth. They are pricey but seem done well to my untrained eye (I did not buy one). The tradition of the Buganda is closely connected with the production and use of bark cloth. The cloth fabric is made from the soft bark of the fig tree – there are still a few of those trees at the Kasubi complex and the guide had shown me these. Bark cloth has been manufactured in Uganda for centuries (until the introduction of cotton by Arab traders), and it represents Uganda's sole entry on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
Read more from Els Slots here.
A place a used to study about, every time I read about Buganda Muzibu Azaala Mpanga came across. To my minds this really indicated a treasure heritage. Today it may not look the same physically due to the destruction, but in belief of the Muganda it will ever remain there and his Heritage.
It is attributed to the architectural development of Buganda for the past, a symbol of religion (traditional beliefs) which which is continuous up to today because many still regard it in the same manner like before.
Having participated in the program of the youth world wide under UNESCO (World Heritage Volunteers 2012), it was an opportunity for me to know how important we should preserve it, how useful it is to generations to come; i can't finish them.
And am yearning for this year's program again to participate in the construction to fulfill my dream of one of the participants of conservation practices at the once a state house for my former King "Muteesa 1".
THE UNIQUE TRADITIONAL ARCHITECTURE OF ITS KIND IN THE WORLD. (1882)
2023 Removed from Danger list
"following the successful restoration work .. and the reconstruction programme which was completed in the summer of 2023"
2010 In Danger
"In March 2010, fire almost completely destroyed the Muzibu Azaala Mpanga building, the main structure at the site which contained four royal Buganda tombs. The property, an outstanding example of an architectural style developed by the Buganda Kingdom since the 13th century, will be reconstructed." (unesco)
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The tombs lie in Uganda's capital Kampala, in the Kasubi suburb.
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